Anger over user-led charity’s links with insurance industry


newslatestA leading national disabled people’s organisation is facing angry criticism from activists over its links with the disability insurance industry.

Disability News Service (DNS) reported last week that Disability Rights UK (DR UK) was under fire for agreeing to work with the US outsourcing giant Maximus, which the government has selected to take over the controversial “fitness for work” contract from Atos Healthcare.

But now DR UK has admitted that it is also being paid £30,000 to support a new insurance industry marketing gimmick.

The new Seven Families initiative will see seven disabled people who have been forced to quit their jobs being handed the same amount of money – every month, for one year – that they would have received if they had taken out an income protection insurance (IPI) policy.

The insurance industry hopes the initiative – which received widespread coverage in the mainstream media this week – will demonstrate to the public how useful it is to have IPI if they happen to become disabled or too ill to continue working.

DR UK claims that it is involved in the project to “test and show the difference it can make to get fast, effective support for independent living and getting back into work when you unexpectedly become disabled or develop a serious health condition”.

The charity added: “The public in general are not aware of what it’s like to rebuild your life after the onset of serious disability.

“If they were they would be far more vocal about the need for a truly supportive social security system, they would demand improvements to employment support and social and health care. This project is a significant opportunity to raise public awareness.”

But DRUK’s decision to back the initiative is hugely controversial, because researchers believe the insurance industry has been pushing the government for years to tighten eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits, while trying to increase IPI take-up.

Activists believe that the outsourcing company Atos has made IPI look more attractive by ensuring that the process of applying for ESA – through the work capability assessment (WCA) – has been harsh and stressful.

Linda Burnip, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said that the organisations DR UK was working with were intent on undermining the welfare state.

She said: “I can see, given the state of their finances, that if they want to continue in existence they are going to have to take anything they can get, but I don’t think they are representing disabled people.”

She said that ordinary disabled people “just feel that they are selling them out in exchange for money”.

Burnip added: “The problem is that the more this idea of private healthcare and private welfare is pushed… the more the welfare state is going to be dismantled bit by bit.”

One of the companies supporting Seven Families is the US insurance giant Unum, the UK’s largest provider of IPI, which was once described by a senior US official as an “outlaw company”.

Four years ago, Unum launched a major marketing campaign to promote the need for IPI, just as the coalition began its three-year programme to reassess about 1.5 million existing claimants of old-style incapacity benefit through the new, stricter WCA.

Unum has admitted there has been widespread criticism of its past actions in the US, mainly over its refusal to pay out on large numbers of genuine insurance claims by disabled people.

Disabled activists insist that the hated WCA is simply a public sector version of the tests used by companies like Unum to justify turning down valid IPI claims.

Mo Stewart, the disabled researcher who has done most to raise concerns about Unum, said that DR UK’s decision to back Seven Families was “totally unexpected, deeply distressing and has caused outrage throughout the disability movement”, and was “yet another attempt to destroy public confidence in the welfare state”.

But it is not the first time that DR UK’s links with the insurance and outsourcing industries have come under scrutiny.

Many disabled activists were dismayed when it emerged that the charity had been in discussions with Capita, and other companies, about the possibility of providing “completely independent” advice and information to disabled people due to be assessed for the government’s new personal independence payment (PIP).

DR UK was mentioned in a tender document submitted by Capita, which subsequently won two PIP assessment contracts.

DR UK is now being paid by Capita to provide that information and advice.

And DNS reported last year that John Gillman, a non-executive director of Disability Rights Enterprises (DRE), DR UK’s trading arm, was a consultant, and a former non-executive director, with Health Claims Bureau, which provides “impartial claims inspection services for disability insurers”.

HCB’s work includes investigating the “validity” of claimants’ “incapacity”, and trying to establish their “true physical functioning levels and psychological status”.

This means that HCB performs a similar role in the private insurance industry to the public sector role of Atos in carrying out WCAs.

Although DRE is now “dormant”, Gillman is still providing unpaid advice to DR UK.

A DR UK spokeswoman said the charity was being paid £30,000 for “co-ordinating support including providing benefits advice and independent living advice” on the Seven Families project.

She said: “DR UK is controlled by disabled people (only disabled people and organisations led by disabled people have a vote; our board has over 90 per cent of disabled people).

“DR UK has never promoted the interests of the insurance industry.

“Every decision we make about the projects we do is based on assessing the benefits in terms of disabled people’s rights and the cons in terms of risks or downsides.

“We only do projects where our analysis shows the impact on rights outweighs the costs.”

6 November 2014